Re: Re: reordering and destruction of irish cathedrals and churches

Home Forums Ireland reorganisation and destruction of irish catholic churches Re: Re: reordering and destruction of irish cathedrals and churches


O’Connell is correct in traacing the origin of the altar rail to the cancelli of the Roman Basilicas. However, altar rails, in Catholic Churches since the Council of Trent (1547-1562) have a dual purpose: that of providing a convenient place to receive Holy Communion, and the original purpose of hierarchially demarkating the Chancel (reserved for the Sacred Ministers) from the nave. This latter purpose is still shared by the Latin western Church and all of the Oriental Churches of whatever Rite (Byzantines, Melchites, Copts, Malancharese, Malabarese etc.). The positioning of altar rails in churches is still recommended in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, third edition, published in 2000.

The immediate origin of the distincion between nave and chancel is to be found in the Christian Basilicas of the 4th. century. These were the first Christian Churhes and took as the model for the distinction the “Cancelli” or rails that divided the law courts from the rest of the Roman pagan basilica. In the pagan Basilica, the notary of the courts sat at the gate of the rails and received the pleas to be passed on to the magistrates who sat in judgment behind the Cancelli, in the apsis of the pagan basilica. This official became known as the “chancellarius” which is the origin of the medieval and modern political office of chancellor.

When Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire and began to build its first churches, to mark the theological distinctions between the clergy and laity, the model of the cancelli of the pagan basilica was taken over. It haoever, was used to express a distinction already used in the first house churches of Rome. It is likely that the hierarchical distinction traces its origin to the Temple in Jerusalem – about which we read in the Books of Exodus, Deutoronomy and Leviticus in the Old Testament. The influence of these texts on church building can be seen for example in the dimensions of the SIxtine Chapel in Rome and in the Papal Chapel at Avignon which reproduce the dimensions of the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the Middle ages, the cancelli developed in the Western Church into the famous Rood Screens which carried figures of the Cross and of Our Lady and St. John. They also had galleries from which antiphons and readings were sung or read (e.g. the French term “jubé” coming from the liturgical expression “Jube Domine benedicere” which is asked by the deacon of the priest before he preaches the Gospel).. The rood screen was provided practoically to every christian church. Eamonn Duffy gives an interesting account of their destruction in England during the Reformation in his book “The Stripping of the Altars”. The Council of Trent decreed that the Rood screens should be simplified to a less elaborate structure over which the altar was visible – hence the modern altar rail to which was added the function of receiving Holy Communion. Perviously, the communicants received Holy Communion at the gate of the Rood Screen, a hausling cloth being held by two clerics. All of these elements were passed over to the new altar rails which must be regarded as a continuation of the Rood screen.

In the Eastern Churches, the original cancelli developed into the iconostasis. On the gates of the sanctuary, icons were exposed. These further developed into the elaborate structures we know to-day which completely screen all sight of the altar and which cut access to the altar for all but those clergy destined for its service. This was unaffected by Trent and continues. It is the Eastern counterpart of the altar rail and of the medieval western Rood Screen.

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